STEPPING into the FIRE
by Chris Bache
Months have passed since the events of September 11 held us transfixed, when we watched in disbelief as the World Trade Center collapsed, killing thousands. Whatever our political affiliation, religious beliefs or social position, our collective destiny changed that Tuesday morning. Events of this magnitude summon us to look deeply into the world we are creating. Toward this end, I wish to share with the noetic community some reflections on humanity’s collective struggle to awaken to wisdom in light of 9/11. My hope is that these thoughts will support your ongoing conversations in your families and discussion groups, and that you may be moved to investigate some of the suggested resources if you have not already done so
1. A World Under Pressure
I believe that the horrendous attack of September 11 is a symptom of a world under enormous pressure. As a symptom, it gives us immediate information about some of these pressures, such as the rise of extremist ideologies and the politics of exclusion. But in order to understand what is taking place at a deeper level, I think we need to look beyond the immediate symptom to the issue as a whole. We need to understand the extraordinary pressures that are being placed on the human family by the specific combination of technological, ecological, economic, and social forces generated by the modern, industrial era. We need to take stock of the evolutionary challenge that humanity is facing as we confront the unsustainability of our civilization in its present form and the terrible economic disparities that plague the human family in a world that is becoming increasingly transparent to itself in the mirror of global telecommunications.
The list of global problems humanity is facing is long and well-known: overpopulation, accelerating climate change, massive extinctions, air that is increasingly unfit to breathe and water unfit to drink, exhausted soil and less of it to farm, quickly depleting stocks of nonrenewable resources, vast disparities between those who have everything and those who have nothing, and so on. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of these challenges. Some readers, tired of being confronted with problems they don’t know how to solve, turn aside whenever they see this list coming. And yet, as painful as it is, I believe we need to open to the full implications of the reality facing us.
Each time I have studied these global trends over the past ten years, I have found that the facts seep deeper into my heart and summon forth a stronger resolve, as though I had not been paying full attention before. It is a potent practice to meditate on these statistics until we can see the human faces contained in the numbers. I think that soberly confronting the ecological and social facts of our troubled planet is a prerequisite for those committed to creating a global wisdom society. It is not where we want to stop, but it is where we must start.
For those who want to see cogent summaries of the facts I am referring to, I recommend the following books: Beyond the Limits by Donella Meadows; Promise Ahead by Duane Elgin; The Choice or Macroshift by Ervin Laszlo; and Eco-Economy by Lester Brown.
2. A World Giving Birth
When we study these facts, our world appears to be falling apart, but from another perspective it can be seen to be giving birth. In order to recognize the deep structure of the forces that are converging on humanity, we need to look at the larger trajectory that is carrying us toward a decisive turning point in our history.
The belief that a new consciousness is being birthed on the planet is the most important assertion of this essay, for everything pivots around this conviction. Fortunately, however, this idea is already familiar to the noetic community, and I think is widely accepted by it. For years, we have been taking to heart books such as Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Peter Russell’s The Global Brain Awakens, Duane Elgin’s Awakening Earth, Willis Harman’s Global Mind Change, Barbara Marx Hubbard’s Conscious Evolution, Bela Banathy’s Guided Evolution, and Jean Houston’s Jump Time. In the context of the new cosmological story articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, these works have boldly articulated visions of an emerging new order, both at the inner level of consciousness and the outer level of social structures.
Birth is a critical moment in life’s regenerative cycle, and therefore it is a powerful image with rich implications. Birth is hard work. Coming after months of gestation, labor takes many women to the limit of what they think they can endure. Is it likely that the birth of a new consciousness on the planet will be less challenging? For my part, it seems unrealistic to think that it would be otherwise. The terrorist attack of September 11, the escalating spiral of violence in the Middle East, and the hole in our ozone layer all suggest that the past will not release its grip on us without a struggle.
I think this is one of the reasons why September 11 hit us so hard emotionally. The events of that day were terrible in themselves, but underneath the trauma of the massive loss of life and the aching fear of vulnerability, I think we all felt something shift at a profound level. It is as though our collective water broke on that day, and we shifted from the work of gestation to delivery.
The birth of a new human consciousness will not be completed in one movement. There will surely be other compression cycles in the years ahead as labor intensifies. In the pause between contractions, things can almost seem to be returning to normal, but the magnitude of the problems we are facing will prevent this from happening until we have finally solved them. Once labor begins, life as we have known it comes to a stop. Things cannot continue as before. Priorities change, events speed up, our focus shifts to the awesome work at hand, and there is no turning back until this work is complete. Do many of us not feel intuitively that we have entered a different time?
3. The Dark Night of Our Collective Soul
If the transition that humanity is making can be meaningfully described as a birth process, I think it can also be described as a dark night of the soul. The phrase comes from the sixteenth-century Catholic mystic, St John of the Cross, and refers to an extended period of acute purification that a spiritual practitioner undergoes immediately before making the final transition to deep spiritual awakening. While the metaphor of birth emphasizes the new life that is emerging, the metaphor of the dark night emphasizes the release of old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that precedes this birth. It emphasizes purification, the act of letting go of what no longer serves. The most common image in the mystical literature for this purification process is fire.
The dark night of the soul is a stage reached only after many lesser trials have been navigated. It represents a process of surrender so complete that it is often experienced as a death. What is dying is everything in us that keeps us small and our identification with that smallness. It is the death of our sense of ourselves as just a physical being, separate from everything and everyone around us, followed by the birth of a more encompassing sense of self that embraces a larger totality.
In my book, Dark Night, Early Dawn, I suggest that we can use the experiences of great mystics to model the collective transformation that humanity as a whole is presently undergoing. This comparison is not as farfetched as we first may think, because the challenges that humanity is facing today are fundamentally challenges of consciousness. Our many political, economic, environmental, and social problems stem from our having reached a specific stage of our collective maturational development, the stage of the egoic self. In this stage we are individually conscious, but awareness has not yet penetrated beneath the surface tension of our individual minds to discover the underlying collective consciousness that unites our lives into patterns of common cause.
Viewed from this perspective, the labor that humanity has entered could be described as a dark night of our collective soul. In order for the expected “great awakening” to take place, I believe that there must first take place a “great purification” of our collective soul, a vast opening of our collective heart. We will have to surrender those beliefs, policies, institutions, and practices that divide us and keep us small, and put new, inclusive beliefs and practices in their place. We will have to exchange a narrow definition of our self-interest for an enlarged sense of collective mission.
If we step back and apply a slightly larger historical lens, we can see that this process of purification has already been underway for several centuries in the many liberation movements that have been transforming our planet—the movement to end slavery, to establish democratic government, to re-empower women, to end the exploitation of children as instruments of labor, to end racism and species-ism, and so on. Taken as a whole, the portrait that emerges is of a humanity that is sloughing off its past as quickly as possible in order to make room for something dramatically new to enter history.
4. Nature Will Support Us
Evolution is punctuated by many crises that have resulted in stunning breakthroughs that could not have been predicted before the crisis. Elisabet Sahtouris demonstrates this pattern in her book, Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution. Indeed, nature seems to do some of her finest work when systems move into crisis. In his book, Macroshift, Ervin Laszlo (see the lead article in this issue) argues that the emerging global crisis is driving humanity beyond its normal operating equilibrium into a non-equilibrium state. This unstable but highly creative situation can trigger the sudden emergence of new, adaptive evolutionary forms in our midst—new social ideals, new values and insights, new kinds of sensitivity and states of awareness. As we engage the considerable challenges confronting us, therefore, I think we can count on receiving nature’s support, and this support will likely manifest in ways we cannot now predict.
Everywhere it turns, science is finding evidence of an extraordinary intelligence embedded in nature and its unfolding. From the very small to the very large, from quarks to galaxies, our universe appears to be saturated with a dynamic, living intelligence whose scope we are just beginning to fathom. This being so, I think that we can trust the intelligence behind the transformative process that is emerging in history as well, however challenging it may be in the short term. We can have what I call “strong trust”—a rationally grounded, experientially rooted conviction—that the birth of this new consciousness on the planet will succeed, that the fire will be truly transformative.
As we let go of our past and surrender what is not working in our world, I think we can expect to receive nature’s endorsement. We can expect to encounter synergistic opportunities that will not materialize as long as we are clinging to old patterns. This is a lesson that emerges from the experience of people who embrace deep therapeutic change in their lives. Heroic effort is often met by grace. Grace in this sense is the wild response of life to life. The more conscious we become, the more aware and engaged, the more we may expect life to respond to us. If we are as implicated in each others’ lives as we have reason to suspect, every step we take toward crafting true solutions to the problems the human family is facing may unleash unanticipated opportunities inside the web of life. In history as in our personal lives, holding on to the past will only prolong and intensify our suffering, while opening to change can suddenly catapult us into a world of new possibilities.
5. The Sensitivity of the System is Increasing
If we apply the insights of systems theory, chaos theory, and morphic-field theory to the evolutionary process we are engaged in, several remarkable conclusions seem to follow. The first is that the species as a whole is actually sensitive to our individual choices. This means that humanity’s collective consciousness is aware of us, that it senses what each one of us is doing, and it registers our actions in some cognitive way. Second, its sensitivity is increasing as the system moves into unstable, non-equilibrium conditions. This means that as the historical crisis we are engaging builds, the influence of the individual is growing larger.
In a linear view of history, we may feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the historical forces aligned against positive, adaptive change. The past is so deeply entrenched in our national budgets and priorities, we may feel hopeless to effect meaningful change. What can one person do to change the outcome of a crisis that has been building for so many centuries? But in a nonlinear view of history as supported by chaos theory, the more intense the crisis, the more influence each of us can have on the outcome. The more our collective attention is aroused as we approach the impending bifurcation point in history, the more free- floating energy there is in the system available to be catalyzed into new forms. This does not guarantee that this energy will be catalyzed in a progressive direction, for it could also be catalyzed in a regressive direction. What it does mean is that in the highly charged conditions we are entering, the actions of each one of us becomes critically important to achieving a positive outcome for the whole.
If we individually commit ourselves to finding and embodying the solutions that the world desperately needs today, both the technological and political solutions and the inner solutions of the heart, our actions will reach out and connect with the hidden initiatives that others are taking. Connections that are latent within the system will spring into being. We do not have to be able to see at the outset how our seemingly private decisions will impact the systems we are part of or how they will make a difference, but we can trust that they will. When we act with resolve, life responds to life, and the grace of synchronicity and synergistic collaboration can emerge.
Because the process of systems-change reflects the laws of nonlinear dynamics, not linear dynamics, our collective transformation may take place much faster than we might think. Under the pressure of extreme circumstances, complex systems can change with lightning quickness. We saw this happen around September 11 when entrenched cultural patterns shifted overnight. New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their police and firefighters changed dramatically in one day. As a nation we are now asking hard questions that we were not asking just months before, and attending more carefully to the international implications of our national policies.
Lastly, September 11 reminded us that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary deeds. When forced by circumstances to make hard choices, something inside us is triggered and we become capable of taking actions we would not have previously thought possible. On that Tuesday morning, we watched people making instantaneous choices requiring great courage, daring, and generosity. Their actions reminded us that we are much better than we tend to think we are, and better than we usually allow ourselves to be. Every time one of us acts with this kind of courage and clarity for the collective good, the transformation of humanity gains momentum.
Chris Bache is IONS’ director of transformative learning. He teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, and at Youngstown State University, Ohio. Chris is the author of Lifecycles and Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind.
Reprinted courtesy of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS)